Surprising Idaho: 11 Reasons we fell in love with this lessor known USA destination


We love to find hidden secrets when we travel. And we love to tell our Aussie friends to scratch off the worn out and exhausted, Santa Monica-Disneyland-Las Vegas trail and to experience a richer USA story filled with outdoor adventure, pristine beauty, and lively cultural experiences.

We loved horse riding in the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho
We loved horse riding in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho

Idaho is one of those hidden gems for us. We didn’t visit Idaho until 2019, and before that Idaho was simply the Potato State to us. We didn’t really have a desire to travel to Idaho simply because we did not know any better.

Then my friend, Christine McEvoy, from Macs Explore started sharing her photos and stories of adventures through Idaho, and my interest was piqued.

And then we visited, and I fell in love.

What?? How did we not know any of this? Traveling in Idaho surprised us in so many ways!

Redfish Lake, Stanley, Idaho
Beautiful Redfish Lake near Stanley, Idaho

To be honest, we only had ONE potato experience the entire time. And that was the most delicious potato nachos in a sports pub, Capone’s Bar & Grill, in Coeur d’Alene.

Plus, it might seem weird to mention this, but when you visit Idaho your accent will stick out. In many other popular USA destinations, your Aussie lingo might just blend in.

Out here, it activates curiosity and conversations with people that pass by and instantly recognize that “You’re not from round here” and want to strike a chat.

This is the one thing I love the most about having a foreign accent – it opens up many opportunities to connect with locals and have meaningful moments with them. It’s a friendliness that will warm your heart.

Idaho is famous for White Water Rafting
Idaho is famous for White Water Rafting

Below are a few of the things we discovered about our Idaho travel experiences that surprised us and catapulted it into our top 5 states in the USA list. We still have so much more to experience.

Idaho Borders Two Spectacular National Parks

Best things to do in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park

Did you know that Yellowstone National Park is also in Idaho?

It’s only 1% of the park comprised of the Island Park Caldera which stretches into the Western section of the park. It’s one of the world’s largest calderas and is filled with Island Park’s beautiful forests and stunning rivers and home to wildlife such as moose, elk, deer, pronghorn, and wolves.

And just a short drive from the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is the Teton Valley in Idaho. It’s the Idaho side of this magnificent Grand Teton Mountain Range.

Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park
Grand Tetons

It’s known as the quiet side of the Tetons and offers views that are just as good as the Wyoming side, with plenty of other nearby places to enjoy like Swan Valley, Mesa Falls, and the Teton River.

Outdoor Adventures on 60% Federally Protected Land

Route of the Hiawatha Trail
Biking the famous Route of the Hiawatha Trail

Having just over 60% of an entire state federally protected is a BIG deal and one of the reasons Idaho is so pristine and full of outdoor adventure.

Idaho’s landscape is vastly different to what you’d experience in Australia. You can move through areas of high mountain ranges to wildflower filled meadows, crystal clear alpine lakes, rivers filled with hot springs, and miles of caves and fields made from long ago erupting lava. 

There are endless recreation opportunities year-round throughout Idaho’s 12 million acres of BLM-managed public land.

Redfish Lake, Stanley
Redfish Lake, Stanley

Take your pick from skiing down powdery slopes, paddle boarding on glacial lakes, soaking in steaming natural springs, mountain bike riding spectacular trails, or hiking forested trails.

Its ruggedness lends itself to unobstructed and raw adventures that you can experience without long lines and crowds typical of other popular outdoor adventure regions in the USA.

A Fascinating Volcanic Story

Craters of the Moon National Monument
Craters of the Moon National Monument

Did you know that Idaho has a fascinating volcanic tale to tell?

The Idaho mountains are split by a wide valley known as the Snake River Plain. Much of this landscape was once volcanic, as massive eruptions associated with the Yellowstone Hot Spot blasted their way across the state over the past 20 million years, flattening the mountains.

The impressive and lunar-like Craters of the Moon National Monument is a fantastic place to learn this tale and see it firsthand.

Craters of the Moon National Monument
Craters of the Moon National Monument

This region was created by a handful of lava flows, which oozed out of fissures along the Great Rift. The Great Rift is a series of deep cracks that start near the visitor center and stretch 52 miles (84 km.) to the southeast.

It created hotspots and calderas all the way to its youngest hotspot, Yellowstone National Park. I loved being able to gain this insight into the creation of this landscape that is connected to Yellowstone – one of the coolest national parks I’ve ever visited.

The weird and wonderful Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve includes 618 square miles of cinder cones, lava tubes, tree molds, lava rivers, spatter cones, and lava beds.

Disneyland could never create anything as magical and unique as this!

The Most Hot Springs in the USA

things to do in Idaho
Snake Pit Hot Springs, Stanley

Something we never get to experience in Australia are hot springs. Idaho has hundreds of natural hot springs – more than any other state – thanks to the natural fault line running underneath it. 

Many will be absent of people. Almost all will have a view to rave about. And many of the best Idaho hot springs are located between Challis and Stanley sitting right beside the Salmon River Scenic Byway, and experiencing them is one of the top things to do in Idaho.

Idaho Hot Springs
Sunbeam hot springs

Look for a small pool bordered by river rocks and the steam rising from the side of the rushing cold river.

Stunning Scenic Byways

Salmon River Scenic Byway
Salmon River Scenic Byway

Are you ready to take front row seat for some of Idaho’s most breathtaking views and mountain scenery?

Idaho has a whopping 31 scenic byways crisscrossing the country. It’s rare for a state to have so many, which speaks to Idaho’s untouched wilderness experience.

A scenic byway is a road that exhibits one of more six qualities – scenic, natural historic, recreational, archeological, or cultural – that contributes to a unique travel experience.

Stanley is the only place in the USA that has three National Scenic Byways leading to it. No wonder Stanley is one of our favorite regions in the country. (Fun Fact: Stanley often sees some of the coldest temperatures in Continental USA)

Gorgeous scenery on the road in Idaho

Steaming natural hot springs beside the rushing river, craggy mountain peaks, ghost towns, sparkling glacial lakes, and endless starry skies are just part of the reason to make this road trip.

Click to read our Salmon River Scenic Byway Road Trip guide.

Idaho is Perfect for Star Gazing

dark sky idaho
Schweitzer Mountain night sky | Photo Credit: Idaho Tourism

Idaho’s rural landscape and lack of light pollution makes it a nighttime wonderland for star gazing.

Idaho is home to USA’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 13 in existence.

The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve includes the cities of Ketchum, Sun Valley and Stanley along with the Sawtooth National Recreation area.

What does this mean for you?

Well, this recognition is only given to the darkest of night skies, which means, you can easily see the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, meteor shows planets and other astral wonders – even just with your own two eyes!

Craters of the Moon National Monument is also a Dark Sky Park. With its lunar like landscape, it’s the perfect place to camp, and star gaze. 

Surprisingly Great Coffee

Coffee at Vault Coffee Shop in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
Vault Coffee Shop in Coeur d’Alene

Let’s talk about the importance of good coffee. A common complaint from an Australian visiting the USA is the difficulty of finding a good cup of coffee.

We consistently experience the pain of this so will celebrate any destination that serves up a latte (or flat white) that gives us a taste of home. (Tip: You’ll rarely find a flat white in the USA. Latte is the closest to it).

Surprisingly, during our Idaho trip we consistently found good coffee in Idaho, and they receive numerous mentions of being a state growing its third wave coffee culture cred.

Just what is this exactly?

It’s tossing out that second wave, gross Starbucks no-love-in a cup, and replacing it with quality coffees nurtured with love, sustainable beans, and innovative brew methods.

Just two of the several Idaho coffee shops I’ll mention where we’ve enjoyed an excellent coffee include Vault Coffee in Coeur d’Alene.

And Evans Brothers Coffee in Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene.

When you visit Idaho, be sure to ask a local’s advice on where to find the best cup wherever you are traveling, especially in the cities in Idaho. It should be easy to find in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint.

Amazing Craft Beer and Cider Scene

Crafted Tap House + Kitchen, Coeur d’Alene
Crafted Tap House + Kitchen, Coeur d’Alene

Idaho ranks 11th for breweries per capita in the USA.

It’s safe to say it’s a booming industry and attracting craft beer lovers from around the globe. Idaho’s fresh beer scene can in part be attributed to its own production of barley, hops, and water – the three key brew ingredients.

We love keeping it local when we travel.

And with the brewery scene, the “pub grub” is on point too. Craig thoroughly enjoyed his beer and burger at Craft Tap House + Kitchen.

And he had one of his favorite beers in the US at Wallace, Idaho, at City Limits Pub & Grill – their Loft Honey Pale Ale, and says their Porter House Pork Chop was also fantastic!

Not only is the craft beer scene impressive, but so is the craft cider scene.

In my travel opinion, The Pacific Northwest so far has had the best ciders in the country. How can you ignore unique flavors that speak to the produce of the region: huckleberry, cherries, blackcurrant, juniper berries, and berries you never knew existed.

Head to Crafted Tap House + Kitchen in Coeur d’Alene and grab yourself a pint of lemon basil cider from nearby Spokane Cidery. That’s a moment you won’t forget. And my all-time favorite cider – possibly drink – in the USA.

Cider at Craft Kitchen + Tap Room in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
Lemon basil cider

Be careful, as it’s strong, and tastes like a refreshing lemonade on a hot summer’s day. The temptation to guzzle is high.

But wait, what if you don’t like beer or cider?

Idaho has Wineries

Wine bar in Sandpoint
Wine bar in Sandpoint

Again, surprisingly, Idaho also has three wine regions with over 60 wineries across 1,300 acres of vineyards, and is starting to get noticed for their flavorful, balanced, and award-winning wines.

It’s one of the fastest growing wine regions in the country and will give you that Napa Valley experience without the pomp and the crowds. Its high-quality wines can be attributed to a combination of climate, rich volcanic soil, and higher elevations.

The Snake Valley wine region is only 40-minutes from Boise making it an easy stop on your Idaho trip. It’s on my list for a return trip.

I enjoyed tasting a local wine at the Pend d’Oreille Winery Tasting Room in Sandpoint at the base of Schweitzer Mountain, a top Idaho skiing destination.

The Skiing in Idaho is Great

We loved our family ski trip to Idaho
We loved our family ski trip to Idaho

When you think of skiing in the USA, places like Aspen in Colorado, Mammoth in California, and Park City in Utah come to mind.

Idaho was not a place I’d previously considered for skiing. Well perhaps, Sun Valley, but that always seemed like the unattainable reality of the rich and famous. (Fun fact: Sun Valley was actually the USA’s first completely purpose-built ski resort and is worth a looksee!)

There are many other fantastic Idaho ski resorts around the state that have excellent powder, great slopes, and affordable price, and best of all, low crowds!

We thoroughly enjoyed our first family ski experience in Idaho visiting three North Idaho ski resorts with less than two hours’ drive between them.

It bought us a diverse skiing experience that we will remember forever.

Cool Small Towns and Cities

Lake Coeur D' Alene, Idaho
Coeur d’Alene sits on a beautiful lake

Coeur d’Alene was the first Idaho town we experienced as we arrived after a long drive from Washington State.

We instantly connected with this vibrant college town with live music spilling out over the sidewalk from an endless row of restaurants and bars near the edge of the lake.

Our days were spent playing on the lake: hiking, supping, swimming, and sunset cruises and then enjoying the evening with good food, music, and craft brews.

Coeur d’Alene
Tubs Hill Trail, Coeur d’Alene

We then discovered Boise and were disappointed we were not there for longer. It quickly rose on our list of cool cities in the USA. And we’re not the only ones, Mike and Anne from Honeytrek (who are currently on a 10-year world honeymoon) have it at the top of their list of places they’d love to live.

And Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to travel to every country, calls Boise the most underrated city in the US.

State Capitol Building, Boise, Idaho
State Capitol building in Boise

It’s also currently exploding in growth as people have discovered its incredible vibrant quality of life and are moving there in droves.

Wallace idaho
Town of Wallace

Plus, you’ll find cute small towns like Sandpoint and Wallace – both giving easy access to mountain resorts filled with activities all year round. (Wallace was featured in our list of small towns to love in the USA.)

Sandpoint City Beach - places to go in Idaho
Sandpoint City Beach

As you can see, Idaho is so much more than potatoes and way more thrilling than theme park rides. It offers an incredible amount of natural beauty, diverse activities, and fresh local produce to savor.

It’s a USA travel experience you’ll never forget (and keep returning to for more).

More Idaho Content

20 Amazing things to do in Idaho for first time travelers
3 Educational Experiences in Idaho
Our first family ski trip in 3 Idaho Ski Resorts
12 Top Outdoor Adventures in Idaho
Route of the Hiawatha: An Unforgettable USA Rail-to-Trail

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